Medically reviewed by Susan Vachon, PA-C on February 4, 2022
It’s common for people to experience the winter blues once cold weather hits. You can’t go outside as much or do as many fun things, so naturally, it’s a little depressing. For some people, however, these feelings are more than just temporary.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that happens during specific seasons. For most people, that means they start feeling sad in late fall and don’t snap out of it until the spring. But how do you know if you have a seasonal affective disorder? Here are some things to be on the lookout for.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Unfortunately, scientists don’t know exactly what causes SAD. However, they believe that the more common winter-related version may be triggered by reduced levels of sunlight. Your body relies on sunlight to help manage its circadian rhythm, which is like your biological clock. When there’s less sunlight, it can throw this clock out of whack, causing your body to feel out of sorts and leading to depression.
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SAD may also be linked to changes in neurotransmitter levels. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that help brain cells communicate with each other. In particular, SAD is linked to a decrease in serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that can affect mood.
One thing researchers do know is that SAD isn’t the same as the winter blues or major depression. With the winter blues, you’ll likely feel better after doing something you enjoy or hanging out with friends. But SAD lingers for months, making it hard to feel better on your own. And with major depression, symptoms aren’t typically linked to the seasons and don’t resolve without treatment.
The Top Signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder
The following is a list of the top signs you may have SAD. Keep in mind though, only a medical professional can diagnose you with SAD. If you have any of the symptoms we mention, make sure to consult with a medical professional for more assistance.
1. Feeling Depressed All Day, Every Day
Perhaps the most noticeable sign of SAD is that you feel sad. That’s what makes it the perfect acronym. You’ll feel depressed or listless nearly all the time, and nothing will be able to bring you out of your funk.
Keep in mind, the sadness that comes from SAD is more than just feeling down from life’s normal experiences. Most people would feel down if their car breaks down or their significant other breaks up with them. However, with SAD, there will often be no trigger for your feelings of sadness.
Along with these feelings of sadness, you’ll also probably take less pleasure in your favorite hobbies and activities. Things you used to love, like playing sports or painting, just won’t have an allure anymore.
2. Having Trouble Sleeping
In people with SAD, it’s very common to experience problems with sleep. In particular, you’ll probably sleep more than normal — a condition called hypersomnia. You may sleep in later than usual, take naps during the day, or fall asleep earlier in the evenings. Overall, this is typically a symptom in 15% of people with depression.
There are a couple of reasons why this happens so frequently in people with SAD. For many, sleeping more than usual can be a way of coping with feelings of depression. When you’re awake, you may feel like life is pointless or you have nothing to look forward to, so you escape reality by heading back to bed.
Another important medical factor that could play a role is disruptions to your body’s circadian rhythm. As we mentioned above, your circadian rhythm controls your body’s basic functions, including sleep. When it’s out of whack, your body will slip out of its normal sleeping patterns. Sleep problems are also linked to a decrease in melatonin, a hormone that helps to regulate how much and often you sleep.
3. Eating More Than Usual
People with SAD often find themselves feeling hungrier than usual. In particular, they may crave carbs and fatty foods. Some people may joke around and say they’re bulking up for winter, but this could be a sign of SAD.
There’s a reason people with SAD want to eat more carbs, in particular. That’s because carbs and other fatty foods can help boost serotonin levels in the brain. This is the neurotransmitter that’s often low in people with SAD, so eating more carbs is the body’s intrinsic ability to help rebalance that.
While eating more carbs may provide a temporary boost of energy, it isn’t a good plan in the long run. Over time, this increased hunger could lead to weight gain. You may find yourself packing on a few pounds without even realizing it.
4. Isolating Yourself
Bears hibernate for winter, but you are not a bear. If you feel yourself tending to draw away from society in the winter months, this may be a sign of SAD. Humans are inherently social creatures, and even if you have a more introverted personality, you still need interactions with others to stay healthy.
People with SAD may not feel like going out or doing anything. This may be because they’re more tired than usual, or it could be because they are having problems concentrating. It may be more difficult for them to think and respond to conversations. Or, they may feel like they’re being a downer and ruining everyone’s fun if they hang out with others when they’re not feeling mentally sharp.
Get Help for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Did you have some of the above symptoms? If so, it’s possible you have SAD. However, the only way to know for sure is to make an appointment with a medical professional. They’ll be able to review your symptoms and ask you more questions about your lifestyle to see if you’re at risk.
If you do have SAD, don’t worry! There are treatments for SAD. Talk more with a trusted medical professional to see what your options are. That way, you won’t have to dread winter every year.
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